EVERY YEAR one movie steps forth and boldly announces itself as the weirdest damned thing to hit theater screens ever. Thomas and the Magic Railroad, based on a highly successful series of children's books and subsequent PBS series about a cheery talking steam engine, is this year's front-runner. Not, as you might be thinking, because the story is exceptionally surreal; even though over half the movie takes place watching brightly colored model trains and busses moving along crude sets that don't even try to hide the fact that they're made out of felt and plastic, the bizarreness quotient of the visuals is definitely sub-Teletubbies. No, what's so odd and disturbing about this putative children's film is that it can imagine no greater or nobler human endeavor than hard, unpleasant work.

I was terrified in my childhood by the song/story of John Henry, who strains so mightily to punch his way through a mountain that, at the tune's end, his heart bursts and he tumbles down and dies. Well, Henry's a lackadaisical piker compared to the chipper folks from Shining Time Station. They bustle about following orders, strive above all to be "really useful," and only stop to sleep because, as the six-inch-tall Conductor (Alec Baldwin, in a role finally commensurate with his short talent) reminds his engines, you need to rest before the long, hard day of work tomorrow. Of all the villainous acts committed by the evil diesel locomotive, none is as blasphemous as when he mocks a verse from "I've Been Working on the Railroad": "Who," he asks (quite rightly in my opinion) "wants to work a lifelong day?" All right, no one gets sent off to hard labor, and it's not like there are signs hanging around reading "Arbeit macht frei," but can't anybody, even a little blue steam engine, dream of doing more than just hauling coal around all day? As I recall my boyhood fascination with dump trucks, the romance went out the window when I realized they couldn't knock down any building they desired; I doubt kids today see them as anything more than a viable entry into the labor pool.